THE PUDDING MASTER OF
Tree, snow and rock beginnings, the mountain in back of the
lake promised us eternity, but the lake itself was filled with
thousands of silly minnows, swimming close to the shore
and busy putting in hours of Mack Sennett time.
The minnows were an Idaho tourist attraction. They
should have been made into a National Monument. Swimming
close to shore, like children they believed in their own im-
A third-year student in engineering at the University of
Montana attempted to catch some of the minnows but he went
about it all wrong. So did the children who came on the
Fourth of July weekend.
The children waded out into the lake and tried to catch the
minnows with their hands. They also used milk cartons and
plastic bags. They presented the lake with hours of human
effort. Their total catch was one minnow. It jumped out of a
can full of water on their table and died under the table, gasp-
ing for watery breath while their mother fried eggs on the
The mother apologized. She was supposed to be watching
the fish –THIS IS MY EARTHLY FAILURE– holding the
dead fish by the tail, the fish taking all the bows like a young
Jewish comedian talking about Adlai Stevenson.
The third-year student in engineering at the University of
Montana took a tin can and punched an elaborate design of
holes in the can, the design running around and around in
circles, like a dog with a fire hydrant in its mouth. Then he
attached some string to the can and put a huge salmon egg
and a piece of Swiss cheese in the can. After two hours of
intimate and universal failure he went back to Missoula,
The woman who travels with me discovered the best way
to catch the minnows. She used a large pan that had in its
bottom the dregs of a distant vanilla pudding. She put the
pan in the shallow water along the shore and instantly, hun-
dreds of minnows gathered around. Then, mesmerized by
the vanilla pudding, they swam like a children’s crusade
into the pan. She caught twenty fish with one dip. She put
the pan full of fish on the shore and the baby played with
the fish for an hour.
We watched the baby to make sure she was just leaning
on them a little. We didn’t want her to kill any of them be-
cause she was too young.
Instead of making her furry sound, she adapted rapidly
to the difference between animals and fish, and was soon
making a silver sound.
She caught one of the fish with her hand and looked at it
for a while. We took the fish out of her hand and put it back
into the pan. After a while she was putting the fish back by
Then she grew tired of this. She tipped the pan over and
a dozen fish flopped out onto the shore. The children’s game
and the banker’s game, she picked up those silver things,
one at a time, and put them back in the pan. There was still
a little water in it. The fish liked this. You could tell.
When she got tired of the fish, we put them back in the
lake, and they were all quite alive, but nervous. I doubt if
they will ever want vanilla pudding again.
ROOM 208, HOTEL
TROUT FISHING IN AMERICA
Half a block from Broadway and Columbus is Hotel Trout
Fishing in America, a cheap hotel. It is very old and run by
some Chinese. They are young and ambitious Chinese and
the lobby is filled with the smell of Lysol.
The Lysol sits like another guest on the stuffed furniture
reading a copy of the Chronicle, the Sports Section. It is the
only furniture I have ever seen in my life that looks like baby
And the Lysol sits asleep next to an old Italian pensioner
who listens to the heavy ticking of the clock and dreams of
eternity’s golden pasta, sweet basil and Jesus Christ.
The Chinese are always doing something to the hotel. One
week they paint a lower banister and the next week they put
some new wallpaper on part of the third floor.
No matter how many times you pass that part of the third
floor, you cannot remember the color of the wallpaper or
what the design is. All you know is that part of the wallpaper
is new. It is different from the old wallpaper. But you can-
not remember what that looks like either.
One day the Chinese take a bed out of a room and lean it
up against the wall. It stays there for a month. You get used
to seeing it and then you go by one day and it is gone. You
wonder where it went.
I remember the first time I went inside Hotel Trout Fish-
ing in America. It was with a friend to meet some people.
“I’11 tell you what’s happening, ” he said. “She’s an ex-
hustler who works for the telephone company. He went to
medical school for a while during the Great Depression and
then he went into show business. After that, he was an errand
boy for an abortion mill in Los Angeles. He took a fall and
did some time in San Quentin.
“I think you’ll like them. They’re good people.
“He met her a couple of years ago in North Beach. She
was hustling for a spade pimp. It’s kind of weird. Most
women have the temperament to be a whore, but she’s one
of these rare women who just don’t have it–the whore tem-
perament. She’s Negro, too.
“She was a teenage girl living on a farm in Oklahoma. The
pimp drove by one afternoon and saw her playing in the front
yard. He stopped his car and got out and talked to her father
for a while.
“I guess he gave her father some money. He came up
with something good because her father told her to go and
get her things. So she went with the pimp. Simple as that.
“He took her to San Francisco and turned her out and she
hated it. He kept her in line by terrorizing her all the time.
He was a real sweetheart.
“She had some brains, so he got her a job with the tele-
phone company during the day, and he had her hustling at
“When Art took her away from him, he got pretty mad. A
good thing and all that. He used to break into Art’s hotel
room in the middle of the night and put a switchblade to Art’s
throat and rant and rave. Art kept putting bigger and bigger
locks on the door, but the pimp just kept breaking in–a huge
“So Art went out and got a .32 pistol, and the next time
the pimp broke in, Art pulled the gun out from underneath
the covers and jammed it into the pimp’s mouth and said,
‘You’ll be out of luck the next time you come through that
door, Jack.’ This broke the pimp up. He never went back.
The pimp certainly lost a good thing.
“He ran up a couple thousand dollars worth of bills in her
name, charge accounts and the like. They’re still paying
“The pistol’s right there beside the bed, just in case the
pimp has an attack of amnesia and wants to have his shoes
shined in a funeral parlor.
“When we go up there, he’ll drink the wine. She won’t.
She’Il’have a little bottle of brandy. She won’t offer us any
of it. She drinks about four of them a day. Never buys a fifth.
She always keeps going out and getting another half-pint.
“That’s the way she handles it. She doesn’t talk very much,
and she doesn’t make any bad scenes. A good-looking woman, r
My friend knocked on the door and we could hear some-
body get up off the bed and come to the door.
“Who’s there?” said a man on the other side.
“Me,” my friend said, in a voice deep and recognizable
as any name.
“I’11 open the door. ” A simple declarative sentence. He
undid about a hundred locks, bolts and chains and anchors
and steel spikes and canes filled with acid, and then the
door opened like the classroom of a great university and
everything was in its proper place: the gun beside the bed
and a small bottle of brandy beside an attractive Negro woman,
There were many flowers and plants growing in the room,
some of them were on the dresser, surrounded by old photo-
graphs. All of the photographs were of white people, includ-
ing Art when he was young and handsome and looked just like
There were pictures of animals cut out of magazines and
tacked to the wall, with crayola frames drawn around them
and crayola picture wires drawn holding them to the wall.
They were pictures of kittens and puppies. They looked just
There was a bowl of goldfish next to the bed, next to the
gun. How religious and intimate the goldfish and the gun
They had a cat named 208. They covered the bathroom
floor with newspaper and the cat crapped on the newspaper.
My friend said that 208 thought he was the only cat left in the
world, not having seen another cat since he was a tiny kitten.
They never let him out of the room. He was a red cat and
very aggressive. When you played with that cat, he really
bit you. Stroke 208’s fur and he’d try to disembowel your
hand as if it were a belly stuffed full of extra soft intestines.
We sat there and drank and talked about books. Art had
owned a lot of books in Los Angeles, but they were all gone
now. He told us that he used to spend his spare time in sec-
ondhand bookstores buying old and unusual books when he
was in show business, traveling from city to city across
America. Some of them were very rare autographed books,
he told us, but he had bought them for very little and was
forced to sell them for very little.
They’d be worth a lot of money now, ” he said.
The Negro woman sat there very quietly studying her
brandy. A couple of times she said yes, in a sort of nice
way. She used the word yes to its best advantage, when sur-
rounded by no meaning and left alone from other words.
They did their own cooking in the room and had a single
hot plate sitting on the floor, next to half a dozen plants, in-
cluding a peach tree growing in a coffee can. Their closet
was stuffed with food. Along with shirts, suits and dresses,
were canned goods, eggs and cooking oil.
My friend told me that she was a very fine cook. That
she could really cook up a good meal, fancy dishes, too, on
that single hot plate, next to the peach tree.
They had a good world going for them. He had such a soft
voice and manner that he worked as a private nurse for rich
mental patients. He made good money when he worked, but
sometimes he was sick himself. He was kind of run down.
She was still working for the telephone company, but she
wasn’t doing that night work any more.
They were still paying off the bills that pimp had run up.
I mean, years had passed and they were still paying them
off: a Cadillac and a hi-fi set and expensive clothes and all
those things that Negro pimps do love to have.
Z went back there half a dozen times after that first meet-
ing. An interesting thing happened. I pretended that the cat,
208, was named after their room number, though I knew that
their number was in the three hundreds. The room was on
the third floor. It was that simple.
I always went to their room following the geography of
Hotel Trout Fishing in America, rather than its numerical
layout. I never knew what the exact number of their room
was. I knew secretly it was in the three hundreds and that
Anyway, it was easier for me to establish order in my
mind by pretending that the cat was named after their room
number. It seemed like a good idea and the logical reason
for a cat to have the name 208. It, of course, was not true.
It was a fib. The cat’s name was 208 and the room number
was in the three hundreds.
Where did the name 208 come from? What did it mean? I
thought about it for a while, hiding it from the rest of my
mind. But I didn’t ruin my birthday by secretly thinking about
it too hard.
A year later I found out the true significance of 208’s
name, purely by accident. My telephone rang one Saturday
morning when the sun was shining on the hills. It was a
close friend of mine and he said, “I’m in the slammer. Come
and get me out. They’re burning black candles around the
drunk tank. ”
I went down to the Hall of Justice to bail my friend out,
and discovered that 208 is the room number of the bail office,
It was very simple. I paid ten dollars for my friend’s life
and found the original meaning of 208, how it runs like melt-
ing snow all the way down the mountainside to a small cat
living and playing in Hotel Trout Fishing in America, believ-
ing itself to be the last cat in the world, not having seen
another cat in such a long time, totally unafraid, newspaper
spread out all over the bathroom floor, and something good
cooking on the hot plate.
I watched my day begin on Little Redfish Lake as clearly as
the first light of dawn or the first ray of the sunrise, though
the dawn and the sunrise had long since passed and it was
now late in the morning.
The surgeon took a knife from the sheath at his belt and
cut the throat of the chub with a very gentle motion, showing
poetically how sharp the knife was, and then he heaved the
fish back out into the lake.
The chub made an awkward dead splash and obeyed allthe
traffic laws of this world SCHOOL ZONE SPEED 25 MILES
and sank to the cold bottom of the lake. It lay there white
belly up like a school bus covered with snow. A trout swam
over and took a look, just putting in time, and swam away.
The surgeon and I were talking about the AMA. I don’t
know how in the hell we got on the thing, but we were on it.
Then he wiped the knife off and put it back in the sheath. I
actually don’t know how we got on the AMA.
The surgeon said that he had spent twenty-five years be-
coming a doctor. His studies had been interrupted by the
Depression and two wars. He told me that he would give up
the practice of medicine if it became socialized in America.
“I’ve never turned away a patient in my life, and I’ve
never known another doctor who has. Last year I wrote off
six thousand dollars worth of bad debts, ” he said.
I was going to say that a sick person should never under
any conditions be abad debt, but I decided to forget it. Noth-
ing was going to be proved or changed on the shores of Little
Redfish Lake, and as that chub had discovered, it was not a
good place to have cosmetic surgery done.
“I worked three years ago for a union in Southern Utah
that had a health plan, ” the surgeon said. “I would not care
to practice medicine under such conditions. The patients
think they own you and your time. They think you’re their
own personal garbage can.
“I’d be home eating dinner and the telephone would ring,
‘Help ! Doctor ! I’m dying! It’s my stomach ! I’ve got horrible
pains !’ I would get up from my dinner and rush over there.
“The guy would meet me at the door with a can of beer in
his hand. ‘Hi, dec, come on in. I’11 get you a beer. I’m
watching TV. The pain is all gone. Great, huh? I feel like a
million. Sit down. I’11 get you a beer, dec. The Ed Sullivan
“No thank you, ” the surgeon said. “I wouldn’t care to
practice medicine under such conditions. No thank you. No
“I like to hunt and I like to fish, ” he said. “That’s why I
moved to Twin Falls. I’d heard so much about Idaho hunting
and fishing. I’ve been very disappointed. I’ve given up my
practice, sold my home in Twin, and now I’m looking for a
new place to settle down.
“I’ve written to Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexi-
co, Arizona, California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington for
their hunting and fishing regulations, and I’m studying them
all, ” he said.
“I’ve got enough money to travel around for six months,
looking for a place to settle down where the hunting and fish-
ing is good. I’11 get twelve hundred dollars back in income
tax returns by not working any more this year. That’s two
hundred a month for not working. I don’t understand this
country, ” he said.
The surgeon’s wife and children were in a trailer nearby.
The trailer had come in the night before, pulled by a brand-
new Rambler station wagon. He had two children, a boy two-
and-a-half years old and the other, an infant born premature-
ly, but now almost up to normal weight.
The surgeon told me that they’d come over from camping
on Big Lost River where he had caught a fourteen-inch brook
trout. He was young looking, though he did not have much
hair on his head.
I talked to the surgeon for a little while longer and said
good-bye. We were leaving in the afternoon for Lake Josephus
located at the edge of the Idaho Wilderness, and he was leav-
ing for America, often only a place in the mind.
A NOTE ON THE CAMPING
CRAZE THAT IS CURRENTLY
As much as anything else, the Coleman lantern is the sym-
bol of the camping craze that is currently sweeping America,
with its unholy white light burning in the forests of America.
Last summer, a Mr. Norris was drinking at a bar in San
Francisco. It was Sunday night and he’d had six or seven.
Turning to the guy on the next stool, he said, “What are you
“Just having a few, ” the guy said.
“That’s what I’m doing, ” Mr. Norris said. “I like it. ”
“I know what you mean, ” the guy said. “I had to lay off
for a couple years. I’m just starting up again. ”
“What was wrong?” Mr. Norris said.
“I had a hole in my liver, ” the guy said.
“In your liver?”
“Yeah, the doctor said it was big enough to wave a flag
in. It’s better now. I can have a couple once in a while. I’m
not supposed to, but it won’t kill me. ”
“Well, I’m thirty-two years old, ” Mr. Norris said. “I’ve
had three wives and I can’t remember the names of my child-
The guy on the next stool, like a bird on the next island,
took a sip from his Scotch and soda. The guy liked the sound
of the alcohol in his drink. He put the glass back on the bar.
“That’s no problem, ” he said to Mr. Norris. “The best
thing I know for remembering the names of children from
previous marriages, is to go out camping, try a little trout
fishing. Trout fishing is one of the best things in the world
for remembering children’s names.”
“Is that right?” Mr. Norris said.
“Yeah, ” the guy said.
“That sounds like an idea, ” Mr. Norris said. “I’ve got to
do something. Sometimes I think one of them is named Carl,
but that’s impossible. My third-ex hated the name Carl. ”
“You try some camping and that trout fishing, ” the guy
on the next stool said. “And you’ll remember the names of
Your unborn children. ”
“Carl! Carl! Your mother wants you!” Mr. Norris yelled
as a kind of joke, then he realized that it wasn’t very funny.
He was getting there.
He’d have a couple more and then his head would always
fall forward and hit the bar like a gunshot. He’d always miss
his glass, so he wouldn’t cut his face. His head would always
jump up and look startled around the bar, people staring at
it. He’d get up then, and take it home.
The next morning Mr. Norris went down to a sporting
goods store and charged his equipment. He charged a 9 x 9
foot dry finish tent with an aluminum center pole. Then he
charged an Arctic sleeping bag filled with eiderdown and an
air mattress and an air pillow to go with the sleeping bag.
He also charged an air alarm clock to go along with the idea
of night and waking in the morning.
He charged a two-burner Coleman stove and a Coleman
lantern and a folding aluminum table and a big set of inter-
locking aluminum cookware and a portable ice box.
The last things he charged were his fishing tackle and a
bottle of insect repellent.
He left the next day for the mountains.
Hours later, when he arrived in the mountains, the first
sixteen campgrounds he stopped at were filled with people.
He was a little surprised. He had no idea the mountains
would be so crowded.
At the seventeenth campground, a man had just died of a
heart attack and the ambulance attendants were taking down
his tent. They lowered the center pole and then pulled up the
corner stakes. They folded the tent neatly and put it in the
back of the ambulance, right beside the man’s body.
They drove off down the road, leaving behind them in the
air, a cloud of brilliant white dust. The dust looked like the
light from a Coleman lantern.
Mr. Norris pitched his tent right there and set up all his
equipment and soon had it all going at once. After he finished
eating a dehydrated beef Stroganoff dinner, he turned off all
his equipment with the master air switch and went to sleep,
for it was now dark.
It was about midnight when they brought the body and
placed it beside the tent, less than a foot away from where
Mr. Norris was sleeping in his Arctic sleeping bag.
He was awakened when they brought the body. They weren’t
exactly the quietest body bringers in the world. Mr. Norris
could see the bulge of the body against the side of the tent.
The only thing that separated him from the dead body was a
thin layer of 6 oz. water resistant and mildew resistant DRY
FINISH green AMERIFLEX poplin.
Mr. Norris un-zipped his sleeping bag and went outside
with a gigantic hound-like flashlight. He saw the body bring-
ers walking down the path toward the creek.
“Hey, you guys !” Mr. Norris shouted. “Come back here.
You forgot something. ”
“What do you mean?” one of them said. They both looked
very sheepish, caught in the teeth of the flashlight.
“You know what I mean,” Mr. Norris said. “Right now!”
The body bringers shrugged their shoulders, looked at
each other and then reluctantly went back, dragging their
feet like children all the way. They picked up the body. It
was heavy and one of them had trouble getting hold of the feet.
That one said, kind of hopelessly to Mr. Norris, “You
won’t change your mind?”
“Goodnight and good-bye, ” Mr. Norris said.
They went off down the path toward the creek, carrying
the body between them. Mr. Norris turned his flashlight off
and he could hear them, stumbling over the rocks along the
bank of the creek. He could hear them swearing at each other.
He heard one of them say, “Hold your end up.” Then he
couldn’t hear anything.
About ten minutes later he saw all sorts of lights go on at
another campsite down along the creek. He heard a distant
voice shouting, “The answer is no ! You already woke up the
kids. They have to have their rest. We’re going on a four-
mile hike tomorrow up to Fish Konk Lake. Try someplace